Author: Breanna Mills R.D.
Exercise has many known health benefits, including increased energy, decreased stress, and increased strength. According to the Government of Canada, exercise may also help to prevent some chronic diseases and has positive benefits for mental health. Although exercise can be helpful and healthful, there is a point where exercise becomes unhealthy.
There is evidence to suggest that withholding exercise in treatment for an eating disorder could result in a higher risk of relapse and poorer outcomes.; however, this is not to say that all forms of exercise are safe throughout all stages of recovery. As Dr. Jennifer Gaudiani stated: “Serious exercise is a privilege of full recovery, but movement during weight restoration makes recovery sustainable.”
Exercise in recovery can become problematic if there is not enough energy from food available. When there is not enough energy for the body to utilize, it must resort to breaking down other body tissues for energy. Exercising in a starved state can put you at risk for fainting, electrolyte imbalances and faster breakdown of important muscles in the body, such as the heart.
Not all individuals struggling with an eating disorder have a troubling relationship with exercise; however, it is important to consider your relationship to exercise, as engaging in dysfunctional exercise behaviour has been suggested to be a predictor of relapse.
How can you tell if your relationship with exercise is harmful?
The following list, adapted from Body Wars, by Margo Maine, outlines some ways to tell if your exercise behaviour is risky.
When Exercise is Excess-ersize: Signs of Risky Exercise Behavior
You judge a day as “good” or “bad” based on how much you exercise.
You base your self-worth on how much you exercise.
You never take a break from exercise- no matter how you feel or how inconvenient it is.
You exercise even though you are injured or exhausted.
You arrange work and social obligations around exercise.
You cancel family or social engagements to exercise.
You become angry, anxious or agitated when something interferes with your exercise.
You sometimes wish you could stop but are unable to.
You know others are worried about how much you exercise, but you do not listen to them.
You always have to do more (laps, miles, weights) and rarely feel satisfied with what you have done.
You count how many calories you burn while exercising.
You exercise to compensate for eating or to punish yourself for eating.
Adapted from Body Wars by Margo Maine
Dysfunctional exercise is often characterized by inflexibility, rigidity and being performed with the intention of punishment or guilt. It also focuses on the outcome of the exercise, versus the activity itself. For example, it focuses on the distance ran, the calories burned, or the time spent exercising. It also may focus on what can be gained, lost, fixed, or undone through activity.
The alternative to dysfunctional or risky exercise is healthy or mindful exercise that rejuvenates the body, enhances the connection between the mind and the body, alleviates mental and physical stress and provides genuine enjoyment and pleasure.
Based on where someone is at in their recovery, exercise can be safely brought in with the support of their team. It is essential to make sure that exercise is supported by your meal plan and that exercise is an ongoing conversation between you and your team. Through following your meal plan and ensuring your body is getting enough fuel and fluids, working on developing a healthy relationship with exercise and engaging in mindful or intuitive movement, exercise can be safe in recovery form an eating disorder.